My Cinetopia International Film Festival preview, via IXITI

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“Captain Fantastic,” starring Viggo Mortensen, plays at the 2016 Cinetopia International Film Festival.

In 2012, Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater launched the inaugural Cinetopia International Film Festival, which screened about 40 films over the course of four days. The fest’s planners aimed to bring several of the best new features and documentaries from the world’s most prestigious film festivals to Southeast Michigan so that local movie buffs could check them out in a festival atmosphere, too.

Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, Cinetopia has grown in many ways. It now runs for 10 days, from June 3rd through 12th, and more than 50 films will play across more than 120 screenings. Those viewings expand beyond Ann Arbor venues to include those in Detroit, Dearborn and Bloomfield Hills (including The Henry Ford Giant Screen Experience, new this year). And in terms of audience attendance, there has been about a 40 percent increase each year.

“We’re a long way away from maturity, but we’re happy with the growth so far,” said Michigan Theater Executive Director and CEO Russ Collins. “It needed to grow pretty aggressively. … We knew that for (Cinetopia) to be viable—and this depends on the scale of what you want to do, of course—we needed to draw at least 20,000 attendees. … Last year, we got to that 20,000 number, but in order for that to sustain itself, we need to keep growing. … The majority of the financial resources for the festival comes from sponsorships, and that’s been really gratifying. We’ve had good sponsorship support, and that’s key to keeping things growing.” READ THE REST HERE

Things to do around Ann Arbor this week: Water Hill Music Festival, ‘Purple Rain’ and more

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A special screening of Prince’s film, “Purple Rain,” has been scheduled at Ann Arbor’s Michigan Theater on Saturday.

Several theater productions continue this week, including the world premiere of Matt Letscher’s “Gaps in the Fossil Record” at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre, and the new, original musical “Irrational” at Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova (housed at The Yellow Barn on Huron St.). At Dexter’s Encore Theatre, “Always … Patsy Cline” continues, and at Huron High, “Drop Dead” finishes its run this weekend. For more entertainment options, read on!

“Rock of Ages” at Pioneer High School Theater Guild. Will Branner directs students in Christopher D’Arienzo and Ethan Popp’s Broadway musical comedy, set in L.A. in the 1980s, about an aspiring rocker who encounters friendship, deception, and love on his road to stardom. The score is comprised of iconic ’80s songs, such as “Hit Me with Your Best Shot,” “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” “The Final Countdown,” and other songs by Journey, Poison, Styx, and Bon Jovi. Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (through May 7, 2016) at PHS Schreiber Auditorium, 601 W. Stadium in Ann Arbor. Tickets cost $15 (seniors age 65 & over and students, $10), available in advance at showtix4u.com.

Ark highlights. Heywood Banks is the stage name of Howell native Stuart Mitchell, a very animated comedian known for his silly musical spoofs, goofy prop humor, and sight gags. Since adopting the nerdy, quietly psychotic Banks persona in the mid-80s, he has risen from a regional favorite to a national star. Friday at 8 p.m. at The Ark; tickets are $25.

On Saturday night, you can check out The Ben Daniels Band. You’ll hear artful, dynamic rock and roll by this Chelsea quintet, led by singer-songwriter and guitarist Daniels, whose influences range from Robert Johnson to Dylan to Jack White. Saturday at 8 p.m.; tickets cost $15.

Both shows happens at The Ark, 316 S. Main in Ann Arbor, and show tickets are available in advance at mutotix.comtheark.org, or 734-763-TKTS. Continue reading

2016 Sonic Lunch lineup announced

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Ann Arbor’s Laith Al-Saadi, who’s been killing it on this season of “The Voice,” will play a Sonic Lunch show. (Photo courtesy of NBC)

If you’re as ready for summer as I am, you’ll be excited to learn what’s in store at Sonic Lunch, the free live music series that happens each Thursday at noon, starting June 2nd at Liberty Plaza, at the intersection of Liberty and Division in Ann Arbor.

Here’s this year’s schedule:

6/2 Wild Belle

6/9 Laith Al-Saadi

6/16 Frontier Ruckus

6/23 JR w/ Joe Hawley of Tally Hall

6/30 Ben Daniels Band

7/7 The Outer Vibe

7/14 The Suffers

7/28 Brett Dennen w/ The Accidentals

8/4 Joshua Davis

8/11 The Ragbirds

8/18 Joe Hertler & The Rainbow Seekers

8/25 Serena Ryder

Things to do around Ann Arbor this week, April 12-17

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Hannah Flam and Joseph Sammour in U-M’s production of “Guys and Dolls.” (Photo by Peter Smith Photography)

Ann Arbor’s Jewish Film Festival continues this week, as does EMU Theatre’s run of “One Man, Two Guvnors” – but there’s tons more on offer, too. Check out all the details below. It’s a little overwhelming. In a good way.

See author Alice McDermott. The U-M English Department Zell Visiting Writers Series presents a reading by this Washington, D.C.-based National Book Award winner (for the 1998 novel, “Charming Billy”). “Someone,” McDermott’s 2013 novel that follows the sharp pains and unexpected joys of an ordinary life, was praised by Booklist as a “keenly observed, fluently humane, quietly enthralling novel of conformity and selfhood.” (McDermott will also be interviewed by author/U-M English professor Peter Ho Davies on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at UMMA’s Helmut Stern Auditorium.) McDermott’s reading happens on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. at the UMMA Apse, at 525 S. State St. in Ann Arbor, and the event is free. Continue reading

My EncoreMichigan.com review of Kickshaw Theatre’s ‘The Electric Baby’

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Julia Glander and Peter Carey in Kickshaw Theatre’s “The Electric Baby.” (Photo by Sean Carter Photography)

If you see Kickshaw Theatre’s inaugural production, Stefanie Zadravec’s ethereal drama The Electric Baby, you just might wonder where the company will go from here – because wow, is the bar already set high.

Baby tells the story of a handful of people whose lives intersect when Helen (Julia Glander), a mother grieving the death of her grown daughter, storms off into traffic and causes a cab to crash into a pole. Rozie (Mary Diworth) and Dan (Michael Lopetrone), fresh from impulsively quitting their crummy restaurant jobs, are the cab’s passengers, driven by Ambimbola (William Bryson), a man who loves buying lottery tickets as much as he hates swearing and lovers’ quarrels.

Helen, despite warnings from her concerned, protective husband Reed (Peter Carey), can’t stop herself from visiting those affected by the accident; and a Romanian woman, Natalia (Vanessa Sawson), offers home remedy recipes to the audience while also narrating stories to the mysterious, glowing baby she’s watching over.

While other dramas have used a similar, tragedy-as-point-of-connection premise – Robert Hewett’s play, The Blonde, the Brunette, and the Vengeful Redhead, the 2003 film 21 Grams etc. – Baby’s humor-infused, wholly engrossing scenes somehow make it feel new again. READ THE REST HERE

39th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Fest’s second night thrills sold-out crowd

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STORY BY ROGER LELIEVRE

On night two of the annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival, it was all about the genre’s elders.

The annual musical buffet, held in Hill Auditorium and sold out Friday and Saturday, is the main fundraiser for The Ark, Ann Arbor’s nonprofit home for acoustic music and more.

Sure, the kids impressed during the first part of Saturday’s show, with deserved standing ovations for Michigan’s own The Accidentals, who opened the evening (the audience loved “Michigan and Again and Again”), and Joshua Davis of “The Voice” and Steppin In It fame. He did a fine job with his easygoing band, despite a muddy sound mix, especially on the Detroit/Flint ode “The Workingman’s Hymn.” The vocal quartet Darlingside (four guys gathered around a single mic) offered sweet, spot-on harmonies that pulled from folk, pop and barbershop traditions and earned another standing O.

Alan Doyle, best known as lead singer for Newfoundland’s beloved export Great Big Sea and touring with his more recent band, got the crowd fired up with Celtic-influenced songs like the bluesy “Testify (Take Me To The River)” and the rowdy GBS-style drinking tune “1,2,3,4” which might as well be subtitled “Whiskey Whiskey.” Much to the delight of this Great Big Sea fan, he also included the GBS song “Ordinary Day” as the capstone of his set. The only problem here was over-amplification – the vocals were on the unintelligible side, though part of the problem was probably Doyle’s charming but thick accent.

But after intermission was when the night really began to sound like a good old-fashioned folk music revival. Continue reading

Highlights from night one of the 39th annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival

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STORY BY ROGER LELIEVRE

One thing you can always count on at the annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival, a fundraiser for the much-loved downtown acoustic music venue The Ark, is that you’re guaranteed two nights of great music, even if you’ve never heard of some of the bands on the bill.

This year’s Folk Festival – the 39th annual, and marking the end of The Ark’s 50-year celebration – kicked off Friday in Hill Auditorium.

Among Friday’s performers, City and Colour had previously played the Folk Festival in 2013. Revered British singer/guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson has countless local appearances to his credit. Yo La Tengo has been performing around these parts for nearly three decades, and the Ben Daniels Band is from neighboring Chelsea.

But The Oh Hellos, Nora Jane Struthers & The Party Line or Penny & Sparrow? Never heard of them? Well, that’s kind of the point. With the Ann Arbor Folk Festival, it’s as much about the bands and performers you know as those you don’t. If you go, you’re bound to find some new favorites, and most of them will be returning to The Ark for full shows later in the year.

For me, one litmus test of the Folk Festival lineup is which of the bands made a big enough impression that I would be willing to catch them solo. So who made the cut? Continue reading

Dexter’s Encore Theatre presents an evening with Sondheim

Screen Shot 2016-01-20 at 1.45.40 PM.pngWant to spend an intimate evening in iconic musical theater composer Stephen Sondheim’s living room, hearing stories and insights from the man himself?

That might be a tall order, but Encore Theatre aims to come close to giving you this experience by way of “Sondheim by Sondheim,” a show, conceived by James Lapine, that marries performances of several of Sondheim’s songs, spanning his long career, with video clips of the composer discussing his life and work.

“It’s like Sondheim is giving this master class on technique and process,” said director (and Encore Theatre co-founder) Dan Cooney. “ … I didn’t see this on Broadway, but I saw a production in Chicago, in this tiny, small space, … and I thought, ‘Oh, it doesn’t need to be a Broadway revue thing with big costumes and kicks and spins. It can just be a night with the man.”

Continue reading